Forgive One Another
Given our struggle to forgive, we easily resonate with the disciples, who following Jesus’ instructions to forgive one another (Luke 17) said, “Lord, Increase our faith!” In reflecting on the ‘one-another’ commands, we consider ‘forgive one another’, by contemplating three questions: Why forgive? What does it mean to forgive? and How do we increase our forgiveness of others?
The urgency to forgive or the danger of not forgiving!
Jesus stressed the urgency of forgiving one another when teaching the disciples to pray. The familiar line in the Lord’s Prayer says (Matthew 6:12): “Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors.” Jesus warns against ignoring this command in verses 14 -15, “If you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” In Matthew 18, Jesus concludes the parable of the unforgiving servant with the same warning: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you (no forgiveness but prison) if you do not forgive your brother from your heart!” The greatest danger in not forgiving others is not losing relationships but losing heaven (i.e. God’s forgiveness)! If we angrily harbor bitterness and resentment and refuse to forgive, our heart hardens and eventually we shipwreck our dead faith and prove Jesus never changed our heart. We don’t lose our salvation but prove we never gained it!
Beyond the damage to our own soul, not forgiving harms others as well. Consider Hebrews 12:15, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the Grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” The root of bitterness grows all kinds of relational sin and consequently an unforgiving person often hurts others in multiple ways. No wonder Jesus said in a discussion on forgiveness (Luke 17:3), “Pay attention to yourselves!” Jesus knew the trouble we caused when not forgiving each other. Jesus knew marriages and families and friends and churches implode and die of thirst when the fountain of forgiveness dries up. So, given these warnings to forgive, we must ask, ‘What is forgiveness?”
What is Forgiveness?
Consider this definition of forgiveness from Thomas Watson, a 17th century Puritan preacher:
When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them. (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 581).
We gain further insight into forgiveness by considering the opposite response. When someone hurts us we instinctively desire repayment. Tim Keller, in a sermon on forgiveness given at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York, suggests we get this repayment by directly hurting the offender, or ruining his/her reputation, or inwardly nursing the offense and rooting against them. Forgiveness involves the inward decision to pay this debt personally, and therefore surrender our right to repayment. God absorbed the debt of our sin and put it on Jesus on the cross. As we choose to painfully absorb the debt of offenses others commit, we find the grace to pray, serve, and help them rather than repay them or secretly root for their demise and rejoice in their calamity. This forgiveness often seems impossible in our own strength, because it is. Therefore, how might we increase our forgiveness?
Paul’s words to the Ephesians gives us some keys to growing forgiveness. He writes, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgive you.” (Ephesians 4:32). The key phrase for our forgiveness: ‘as God in Christ forgive you.’ God’s forgiveness of us in Christ births and empowers our forgiveness. Ponder these forgiveness helps from the work of Jesus and the teaching of Paul.
Wonder at God’s mercy!
Paul says to imitate God’s love ‘as beloved children’ (5:1). The phrase ‘as beloved children’ means forgive because God loved us and forgive in the way God loved us. As God forgives our sins He gives us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:24 -26) with new desires and a new capacity to show His love. Forgiving like Christ takes more than hard work, it requires God creating a new heart within us! Therefore, to help us forgive others we ponder anew the beauty of God’s mercy, amazed that God forgives us and that He paid the price to justly forgive. As we see and treasure His love, God grows mercy within us to forgive others not because they deserve it but because we desire to imitate Christ. We need daily moments of wonder and worship of Christ and His undeserving love to feed our new heart. Try taking 10 minutes per day, twice a day, to read one of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion or some verses that describe God’s work (ask me for verses if needed). Before reading, ask God to open your eyes to His beauty, and after reading meditate on the words of His love expecting that God answered your prayer to see His glory. Filling our mind and heart with His love spills over into increased forgiveness.
Act the miracle: Die to Self and Put on New Clothes
The path to Christ’s love requires dying to self and our natural self-exalting ways. A few verses before the command to love and forgive, Paul writes, “Put off our old self, which belongs to our former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and ….put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (4:22-24). To the Romans Paul said, ‘be killing sin’ (Romans 8:13), and Jesus said unless we die, like seeds, we will not bear fruit (John 12:23-24). God calls us to purposefully think and act the miracle God accomplished in our hearts on the cross. Therefore, we wage war against bitterness and hatred, knowing our old self died with Christ, and we fight to replace them with kindness and forgiveness. God grows these fruits within us, but He grows them as we fight. How hard do you fight to resist or purge your life of anger, bitterness and revenge? Have you resisted to the point of shedding blood? (Hebrews 12:4) How much effort do you exert to practice forgiveness?
Humbly pray for and serve those who offend us
Paul begins Ephesians chapter 4 with, “I urge to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility…..” (4:1-2). Paul knows that a God-honoring, Christ-made life of forgiveness requires humility, namely a proper view of our self, our enemies (those who offend us), and our God. Miroslov Volf, professor of theology at Yale, and a scholar on forgiveness and relationships, writes, “Forgiveness flounders when I exclude my enemy from the community of humans, and I exclude myself from the community of sinners!” (Volf: Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a culture stripped of Grace) Comparing ourselves to our offenders we might feel good, yet comparing ourselves to Christ, we realize our sinfulness and His holiness. A true view of Jesus and our sin makes our underserved forgiveness huge and our forgiveness of others small. As Jesus clearly impied in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18), How dare we enjoy forgiveness of a big debt, while we demand revenge or repayment for a smaller one? Jesus, also said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 6:44). Jesus knew praying for and serving others builds humility and humility inevitably leads to more forgiveness of our offenders.
As you consider the command to ‘forgive one another’, whether at work, school, church, or home, pray for yourself and the Grace family that God flourish our love for one another by increasing our forgiveness of each other.